Unpacking why the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter’s debut studio album is still a symbol of innovation and individuality
While new artists and new releases fill our ears and flood our playlists every day, since 2012 Frank Ocean has done the seemingly impossible in today’s music landscape: he’s made his fans wait. His name has a poetic allure, and he sparks a fascination that borders on obsession for many – myself included. When you’re a Frank Ocean stan and you’re in the mood to listen to his music, you have no choice but to listen to him: peers like Miguel, Syd, or any of the artists you might find on the ‘Related Artists’ tab of his Spotify page can’t satisfy that thirst. His sound has not, and perhaps cannot be replicated.
This level of dedication didn’t come from nowhere. Five years ago, the idiosyncratic R&B singer-songwriter released his debut album, the game-changing Channel Orange, establishing himself as a quasi-mythological creature. Five years later, it remains a symbol of what it means to be utterly individual. Here, we look back on the album that showed us why no one else is quite like Frank Ocean.
Channel Orange was released in the aftermath of an open letter that Ocean posted to his Tumblr that stirred huge speculation about his sexuality. He detailed, in a simple computer screenshot, that his first love was a man, and how it ended in heartbreak and confusion. In the subsequent years, people have attempted to crown him as a gay icon, classing the letter as an official coming out announcement – but Frank himself has made it clear, in a GQ interview, that he’s reluctant to delineate his sexuality with labels and boxes.
In his later work, Ocean has remained distinctly fluid, particularly in his use of gendered pronouns. What could be seen as a tool of his storytelling was also a defiant act in itself – an artistic rejection of identification. His openness brought a much-needed ambiguity into the mainstream: a voice against biphobia, for those still trying to define themselves, or for those who feel no need to.
Speaking to the New York Times in 2012, Ocean discussed his desire to disappear into his work, like a director creating something of their own while maintaining a level of anonymity. “The work is the work, the work is not me,” he said. On Channel Orange, he did just that, falling into the role of omniscient storyteller. It’s a sonically diverse record, and Frank didn’t hesitate in flipping and switching the sound of the album from track to track – and as often as you’d hear twists and turns in production, he mirrored the movements in the perspectives within the stories. Entwining his own personal heartbreaks with figments of his imagination, he painted a series of portraits to engulf the listener and disguise himself. But much like his inspirations Stevie Wonder and Prince, he created his own trademark within a patchwork of faces and places – as the intimate voice of thoughts that are simultaneously universal and no one’s in particular.
While Channel Orange explores so many perspectives, most take place in a state of introspection or emotional expression. In a genre that often constructs stories of love and relationships that are braggadocious or just overtly sexual, Ocean shines a light on the smallest of sensations. Like a stream of consciousness, fleeting thoughts crop up and disappear in seconds, and the songs abandon structure to take unexpected detours.
Ocean is also not afraid to point a lens directly in the face of rejection. The album explores romantic failures and feelings of displacement with a heartbreaking honesty and authenticity. Fuelled by his own need for catharsis, the record is an uncommonly honest exposition of pain in the R&B sphere to this day. On “Bad Religion” he croons, “This unrequited love / To me it's nothing but a one-man cult / And cyanide in my styrofoam cup / I can never make him love me.” Few other records really parallel the candour with which he addresses toxic relationships and damaging self-perceptions (although SZA’s Ctrl arguably comes close).
When Frank Ocean first emerged with his mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA in 2011, he gave us textural snapshots of his voice and his pen. Self-released and free to download, it involved some heavy sampling from songs by Coldplay and The Eagles on tracks “American Wedding” and “Strawberry Swing”, where he transformed their tracks by singing over the exact same instrumentals with his own (arguably better – don’t fight me) lyrics. When his name started to gain traction, this landed him in a bit of trouble. An unclear feud-cum-lawsuit from The Eagles’ management has meant that Ocean is pretty much banned from playing “American Wedding” live ever again, but scepticism also formed over his songwriting ability – was he just a lyricist, or could he be a musician of his own making?
Channel Orange eradicated those doubts. With the help of collaborator Malay, the album’s primary producer, Ocean used crafted an elaborate landscape of sound just for him – with genre-defying instrumentation, ranging vocals, and intricate non-musical additions. Channel Orange took the compassion and talent from nostalgia, ULTRA and amplified it tenfold through his own voice and curated accompaniments.
THE ONE BEFORE THE ONE WE HAVE NOW
Frank Ocean’s career has been followed ferociously – he’s been the subject of memes, theories, and a lot of impatience – all at the hands of a stellar studio album that hooked a generation of unsuspecting music lovers. With time, it unfolded into the full-bodied work that it's recognised as today, with hidden meanings and new favourites emerging, even on the thousandth listen. Via television-style transitions and abstract lyrics, Ocean refused to reach for the catchiest or most obvious, demanding patience from his listener whilst enticing them with colourful imagery and fantastical tales.
But the way that we consumed Channel Orange also meant that when its follow-up Blonde eventually arrived, we knew to listen closely. This time around, Frank was even quieter in his message, but he followed a similar template – the preachy skits from mother dearest, the longform songs and sprinklings of party tunes amidst a melancholic tracklist made the transition a smooth one. While the first album is a study of society and the complex people within, Blonde details all those wide-ranging features within the individual. The nonlinear narratives, contradicting thoughts and voice collages echo through to the latest project, forcing you to unpack and decipher with the knowledge that with time, the rewards will be plenty.